Maintenance window scheduled to begin at February 14th 2200 est. until 0400 est. February 15th


Forgot Password?

    Defense Visual Information Distribution Service Logo

    The Bethesda Chronicles, Part 5: The Atomic Age Nexus

    The Bethesda Chronicles, Part 5: The Atomic Age Nexus

    Photo By André B. Sobocinski, Historian | US Navy Sailors passing time in fallout shelter on the Bethesda campus, February 1962....... read more read more



    Story by André B. Sobocinski, Historian 

    U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery

    Six feet beneath the bustling medical campus at the Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda, Maryland, lies a forgotten relic of the Cold War – a fallout shelter that once hosted a groundbreaking experiment. Built in January 1962, this shelter was designed not only to withstand a nuclear blast, but to push the boundaries of human endurance in a confined space.

    As Cold War tensions escalated in the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy's public advocacy for "community shelters" ignited a national phenomenon – the fallout shelter craze. This resulted in an estimated construction of hundreds of thousands of shelters across the United States, with over a thousand concentrated in the Washington, D.C. metro area alone.

    Leading this effort was the Department of Defense's Office of Civil Defense (OCD), previously known as the Office of Defense and Civilian Mobilization. The OCD's mission was to minimize civilian casualties in the event of nuclear fallout. Working alongside the Army Corps of Engineers and the Navy's Bureau of Yards and Docks (forerunner of the Navy Facilities Command), the OCD undertook a three-pronged approach:

    • Survey existing public shelters. Assessing existing public shelters to ensure they met safety standards.

    • Stocking shelters with supplies. Stocking shelters with essential food, water, and first-aid supplies.

    • Marking designated shelters. The iconic fallout shelter signs, featuring three bright yellow triangles inside a black circle, were mass-produced and distributed across the nation. In 1962 alone, a staggering 1.4 million signs were procured – one million steel signs for indoor placement and over 400,000 aluminum signs for outdoor visibility.

    Constructed by the Bureau of Yards and Docks, Bethesda’s shelter was designed as an "experimental" prototype. Essentially, it was a subterranean Quonset hut – a prefabricated, semi-cylindrical structure – measuring 25 feet wide, 48 feet long, and 12 feet high. Built with 10-gauge galvanized corrugated steel and reinforced with concrete, it boasted impressive resilience: it could withstand a blast of 75 psi (pounds per square inch) and offered protection from fire, radiation, and radioactive fallout.

    To evaluate the shelter's habitability, a collaborative study was conducted in February 1962 by the Bureau of Yards and Docks, the Naval Medical Research Institute (NMRI), and the Naval Research Laboratory. The research subjects were selected from a pool of naval seaman apprentices who had just graduated basic training at the Naval Training Center Great Lakes, Illinois. Of the 283 volunteers, 150 were selected to undergo physical and psychiatric examinations; 96 of these individuals—mostly teenagers—were selected for the study.

    The participants entered the shelter on Feb. 17th, and were joined by a Navy physician, two hospital corpsmen and an engineer who served as “monitors.”

    For two weeks—the estimated time radioactive fallout would prove the greatest threat to humans—these subjects were confined under the watchful eye of a camera that transmitted to a video monitor at NMRI. Inside, subjects had access to water supplied by a 4,000-gallon storage tank; and six chemical toilets partitioned off by canvas curtains and 50 bunks.

    The living space was dominated by bunk beds arranged in two long rows, five beds deep and stacked five high. This cramped configuration left participants with only about one-tenth the space available on a submarine. Like submariners, they were forced to hot-bunk, sharing beds in shifts.

    Power was provided by a 10-kilowatt diesel generator located outside, venting fumes through a small pipe. While the shelter boasted a ventilation system for filtering atomic, biological, and chemical agents, there was no heating system, making for chilly conditions.

    The limitations of hygiene were stark. With only wet wipes for washing (no running water allowed), limited toilet supplies (13 gallons of chemical for six toilets!), and just one change of socks per person, maintaining cleanliness proved a significant challenge. The provided rations (enriched crackers, dried soup, chocolate, etc.) offered 2,000 calories a day, but variety was scarce.

    Despite these constraints, efforts were made to foster a sense of community and mental stimulation. The shelter provided a wealth of games (playing cards, board games, chess sets) and reading materials (magazines, paperbacks). Residents also received paper pads, pens, and pencils, with the encouragement to keep diaries – a thoughtful way to promote self-reflection and expression during their stay.

    Smoking, then ever present at naval facilities, was allowed. Research subjects were permitted to bring their own cigarettes and matches; additional packages of cigarettes were supplied as needed.

    Despite the monotony and cramped quarters, most participants later reported surprisingly high morale throughout the study. The most common complaints centered around the close confinement, unappetizing food, and disruptive noise levels from snoring, which reportedly reached up to 70-78 decibels – similar to loud traffic. The close quarters also led to the spread of respiratory infections and colds, posing another challenge for participants.

    On March 3rd, the shelter doors swung open, revealing a blinking, joyous group. Though shaken and light-sensitive after two weeks underground, their faces beamed. They were greeted with a condensed news report summarizing the world they'd missed, and each received a certificate commemorating their role as charter members of the "Shelter Club." Following this, participants underwent debriefing sessions at the Naval Medical Research Institute.

    The experiment proved a resounding success. It demonstrated the viability of long-term habitation in fallout shelters. To further test the shelter's capabilities, a second two-week trial was conducted in Aug. 1962, focusing on heat tolerance. This was followed by a surprise confinement in 1963, involving 33 NNMC officers.

    Bethesda and the Birth of Atomic Medicine:

    The Cold War was most certainly felt at Bethesda.

    Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, thousands of wounded service personnel who fought in Korea and Vietnam came to Naval Hospital Bethesda for definitive care and rehabilitation. During this same period, Bethesda became every bit of an “atomic age medical center” and a leader in the nascent field of radiobiology.

    In 1949, while serving as both NMRI Commanding Officer and Director of the Atomic Medicine Division at the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED), Capt. (later Rear Adm.) Charles F. Behrens published Atomic Medicine. The book, a first of its kind, provided the latest knowledge of radiation biology and physics as it related to medical research, medical care and dentistry, radiation illness, as well as atomic disaster planning and safety.

    While at Bethesda, Behrens cemented his legacy as the “atomic doctor,” developing procedures for clinical use of radioisotopes, establishing a photodosimetry program, and investigating radiation safety problems. He was joined in these efforts by a number of his Atomic Medicine co-authors including: Cmdr. Shields Warren, a Navy pathologist who led the first systematic study of radioactive fallout ever conducted; Lt. Cmdr. Francis Chambers, Jr., a pioneering naval radiation health specialist, who served as consultant to the nuclear weapons testing program and supported seven atomic bomb tests between 1951 and 1958; and Lt. Cmdr. Eugene Cronkite, an NMRI hematologist who studied the effects of nuclear weapons testing and was the first to identify links between sublethal radiation exposure and cancer.

    Atomic Medicine proved to be an influential book. It went through five editions between 1949 and 1966. The Navy Medical School even adapted it into a correspondence course in 1955.

    Recognizing the dawning of the atomic age, the Naval Medical School launched a series of new courses in the late 1940s and 1950s to prepare its students. These courses covered a range of topics, including the medical aspects of special weapons and radioactive isotopes, X-ray physics and techniques, radioactive isotope therapy techniques, and the clinical use of radioisotopes in medicine and nursing.

    Bethesda became home to several new administrative units in the 1950s and 1960s that underscored the role in environmental medicine and radiological safety in the atomic age. These included the:

    • Navy Toxicology Unit (NTU). The forerunner of the Environmental Health Effects Laboratory (EHEL) at the Naval Medical Research Unit-Dayton. NTU was established in October 1959 to “provide technical and specialized services in the fields of operational toxicology and health engineering as related to toxicity problems encountered aboard ships and in the design of new weapons systems.” In the early 1960s, NTU played a key role in screening all materials and chemicals going aboard submarines for possible toxicity, conducting inhalation studies.

    • Radiation Exposure Evaluation Laboratory (REEL). REEL was established in October 1960 as an administrative unit of the National Naval Medical Center to “study and work out treatments for future victims of accidental radiation exposure.”

    • Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute (AFRRI). Established in May 1961. The tri-service Department of Defense Laboratory originally under the management of the Department of the Navy and sponsored by the Defense Atomic Support Agency (later Defense Nuclear Agency) existed to “investigate the biological effects of ionizing radiation in response to Army, Navy and Air Force needs” and radiation injuries and recovery.

    By undertaking these activities, Bethesda not only solidified its critical role during the Cold War but also broadened its capabilities as a leading multifunctional medical center.


    “Bethesda.” BUMED General Correspondence Files, 1942-1970. Record Group 52, National Archives II in College Park, MD.

    Bethesda, National Naval Medical Center, Command Operation Reports, 1966-1972.

    “Charles Behrens, Navy Medic, Dies.” (March 24, 1974). Washington Star-News.

    National Naval Medical Center News/Journal, 1948-1971.

    Nuclear Reactor Set in Bethesda. The Washington Post and Time Herald; Nov 9, 1960; The Washington Post; p B3.

    O’Connor, A. (July 11, 2001). “Found Cancer’s Links to Radiation Exposure.” The New York Times, Section B, p9.

    “Toxicology Unit Provides Real Service to Fleet, Entire Navy.” (February 12, 1964). U.S. Navy Medical News Letter 45(3).



    Date Taken: 03.18.2024
    Date Posted: 03.18.2024 08:28
    Story ID: 466405

    Web Views: 732
    Downloads: 2